Labour

After a Gloomy Diwali, Delhi’s Construction Workers Hunger for Lost Wages

A ten-day ban on all construction in the city left daily-wage workers helpless and angry. Now they are struggling to return to work.

For construction workers in Delhi, Diwali has always been a busy time. While they struggle to find even 15 days of work every month, ample amount of repair and maintenance work ensures a steady income for the festive season. They also get small bonuses and sweets or clothes to take back to their families. Most of them earn Rs 250-500 as daily wage (less than minimum wages for Delhi), and in their hand-to-mouth existence, even one day without work might mean having to sleep on an empty stomach. This festive season has brought them many such days.

As an emergency measure to tackle Delhi’s deteriorating air quality, the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) had ordered a ban on all construction activities in Delhi-NCR from November 1 to 10, which was later extended to November 12. Labour chowks in the capital have been mostly empty ever since even workers are desperately looking for odd jobs and arranging money to survive. Although the ban has now been lifted, construction work is allowed only during the day.

The struggle to make ends meet

Forty-five year old Hiralal, who has been working as a mason for 25 years, hasn’t had any work since October 28. He has four children and also has to care for his elderly parents. “We earn more during Diwali but couldn’t celebrate this time because instead of more work, we were rendered jobless. I am in debt now because I had to borrow money for food. Government employees get paid even when they don’t go to office, but we don’t have that luxury. We will starve if we don’t find work every day,” he tells The Wire. “We are the worst affected due to pollution and wouldn’t do this work if we had any other option. This is a question of livelihood for us,” he adds. Most other workers The Wire spoke to echo this indignation.

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The workers allege that they weren’t given any time to make alternative arrangements. The government did not provide them with other work either. Tasleem Ahmed, 51, has been working in the construction sector for 15 years. He says the government should have arranged for alternate employment or provided them with some allowance. “Will the government not charge us for electricity this month? Will our house rents be waived off? How do we survive and feed our families if you won’t let us work?” he asks agitatedly.

While the workers say they understand the need for the ban, they also feel shortchanged. “Vehicular emissions cause much more pollution. Even the Supreme Court order banning bursting of crackers was flouted openly. We have no other option and yet we suffer the most. We don’t see anyone losing their livelihood or suffering like we have to,” Rukmani, who works as a coolie at construction sites, tells The Wire.

Adding to their woes, they still have no clarity on when the work will resume. While the ban has officially ended, there is a lack of clear and direct communication. While some workers say they were chased away by the police when they went back to work on November 13, others say their employers have asked them to return after November 15. “Police say the ban is still in place and we would be arrested and fined if we come back to work. The builder also says he won’t take responsibility and we can work at our own risk,” a group of workers at JJ colony in Uttam Nagar tells The Wire.

A gloomy festive season

While many workers who live in Delhi were forced to borrow money to put food on the table, migrant workers have left for their native villages empty-handed. “Migrant workers generally leave their families behind and return with earnings or gifts during the festive season. But this time, they had to return home because they couldn’t afford to live in Delhi without work,” Rajiv Kumar Pandit, president of the AICCTU-affiliated Building Workers’ Union, tells The Wire. “I didn’t have the money to even light lamps this Diwali, my children and I slept empty stomach that night,” Rukmani, member of the Delhi Nirman Mazdoor Sangathan and mother of two children, adds.

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The Building Workers’ Union marched to the residence of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and labour minister and chairperson of the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board Gopal Rai on November 8 with two major demands. In a memorandum letter submitted to both Kejriwal and Rai, the Union demanded that all building and construction workers be paid minimum wages for the loss of work during the ban and a study be commissioned to ascertain allergies and other occupational diseases caused by construction work so that the workers can be adequately compensated and provided with safety equipment.

The Wire emailed questions to the office of Delhi’s labour minister Gopal Rai and the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Anil Baijal but has not received any response during the time of publication of this report.

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